The Making of A Cancer Activist

Joel Nowak is a prostate cancer patient and well-known cancer activist.

Tell us about your own prostate cancer journey and how you came to cancer activism.

Mr. Joel Nowak: Part of my journey to being an advocate pertains not only to having prostate cancer and recurrence but also to the fact that I had multiple primary cancers. I currently have five different primary cancer diagnoses.

I was treated initially for prostate cancer at the end of 2001. I had a Gleason 3 + 4 with a PSA of only 4. I had surgery. I went back in five years and my PSA went crazy, up into the 80s.

At that point, it was a recurrence. We did a bunch of scans. We identified a couple of lymph nodes in the prostate bed, as well as a very significant and large tumor in my kidney. At that moment, the assumption was that I had a prostate cancer tumor in the kidney and that the kidney had stopped functioning and was basically dead. I had a nephrectomy, which is the removal of the kidney. We found out that it was a different diagnosis: clear cell renal cancer.

Looking back, I see that prostate cancer recurrence saved my life because that’s how I found out that I had renal cancer. If it weren’t for my prostate cancer recurring, I would not be here today.

I was in my early 50s, so I was fairly young at the time. I knew I was metastatic with prostate cancer and had been diagnosed with another primary cancer. Knowing that I was metastatic weighed very heavily on me. There was no way to use that C-word—cure—which I don’t like to use. I looked desperately for people in a similar situation. I refer to it as looking like me, but I don’t mean physically. I mean people in their 50s, with a kid in high school, a kid in college, and metastatic prostate cancer that was incurable and possibly terminal.

I found myself becoming angrier and angrier.

Not only did I have metastatic cancer, but also I felt very alone in the sense that I couldn’t find anybody in a similar situation. I went from one cancer support group to another. Though I lived in metropolitan New York where there are options, I still could never find anybody I could relate to directly, someone with a similar experience. I found plenty of older men who were worried about whether or not they would make it to their grandchild’s wedding and things like that, but for me, that had no relevance. I became more isolated, lonelier, and angry.

One night, I was inappropriate with the group leader of one support group. I was overly aggressive and blamed that person for what I perceived as my situation. Instead of reacting to my aggression, the person just sat back in their chair, looked at me, and said, “Why don’t you do something about it?” I went home and discussed it with my wife who tried to stabilize me. “Why don’t you,” she said. I got angrier at first and just stewed for a while.

It has been 10 years, but when I went to bed that night I thought I was going to die within a few years. It’s common for many men with recurrence or metastatic cancer to wonder if they’re going to die in a year or two. I felt terrible and angry. I’m not really an angry person, but I had become a very hostile person.

When I woke up the next morning, I decided that I didn’t want to live my life feeling that way. I was going to find a way to let go of that anger and do something about it. That’s how I got involved with activism.

You decided to channel all the fear, anger, and anxiety into something positive.

Mr. Nowak: Yes. I think that’s what it was. I’m not saying that I still don’t have moments; I do. And since then, I’ve had two additional primary cancer diagnoses. One of them was a rare cancer. But the prostate cancer was the only one that caused that kind of emotional response, probably because that is the only one, so far, that is metastatic.

I spend a lot of time with prostate cancer, but I also work with other cancers—metastatic, advanced, and progressed prostate cancer.

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